Ethical Parenting

GREAT article by Lisa Miller in New York Magazine on ethical parenting,

Why else would an otherwise conscientious couple decide to hold their perfectly normal kid back a year, except that she’ll be that much older than the other kids in the class and thus that much better at sitting still during tests? Why else does a father volunteer to coach Little League and then put his son in the cleanup spot? Why else do parents do their children’s homework night after night, except that they fear that without the “help,” the kids would fail or falter or fall behind? Parents instruct their children to “get what they get and don’t get upset”—and then they beg and bribe the adults in their children’s lives, haranguing teachers for better grades and theater directors for bigger parts and clergy for “the best” assignment in the soup kitchen, and they curry favor (they hope) with foil-wrapped bottles or hard-to-get tickets at Christmastime. In the interest of giving kids “a leg up,” ­parents will do almost anything: They’ll call friends on the board; they’ll pull strings to procure internships; they’ll invite the coach over for dinner; they’ll claim strong adherence to a religion or an ethnic identity that is, in fact, weak; they’ll fake recommendation letters; they’ll neutralize their child’s competition for a spot on the hockey team by whispering something about someone’s alcohol use; and they’ll administer the occasional misbegotten tablet of Adderall. The ­ultimate litmus test in New York City is this one: How many good people do you know who have lied about their address to get their kids into the better public school? And are you more or less sympathetic if that person is a hedge-fund manager or his nanny?

And let me add Public Enemy Number One to the list of disgusting parents — the idiots who abused the special needs pass at Disney and broke it for the kids who really need it.


39 thoughts on “Ethical Parenting

  1. I’m reading “The parents we mean to be” by Weissbourd now, which deliberates along the same lines. Unfortunately, although it raises the issues and even understands the motivations of the parents (sometimes using the author himself, rather than his clients as a psychologist as references), I don’t think these discussions are going to do much to change behavior.

    i see the parental behavior (as well as the related kid behavior, like justifying cheating, or selective attention to homework, or other methods of doing well) as being the result of the winner-take-all society we are moving towards. Folks focus on the college admissions race as the culprit (and it is, in part), but so is the growing belief, especially among the elite, that the future society is going to have winners and losers and no place in between.

    1. Folks focus on the college admissions race as the culprit (and it is, in part), but so is the growing belief, especially among the elite, that the future society is going to have winners and losers and no place in between.

      I think the fear of a future divide like that is responsible for much of the behavior like that. Still some people are just assholes. I’ve seen parents use deception and threats to get kids into activities that no sane person could believe would have any bearing on their future success (e.g. soccer teams for five-year-olds). They just seem to not know any other way to operate.

      1. Yeah, I don’t have an explanation for that. The author mentions the resource limit explanation — about bonobos and chimps — which can only be taken so far, which fits with winner take all. Maybe 5yo soccer teams are resource limited (ie not many of them?) or they think their soccer team of the future will depend on their 5yo choice? It would be interesting to ask.

  2. I wouldn’t put all those things in quite the same category. In particular, helping with homework and helping children procure an internship seem morally unproblematic to me. At the other end of the spectrum, I don’t know quite what is meant by “fak[ing] recommendation letters,” but if it means forging letters, then that is orders of magnitude more reprehensible than any of the other behaviors.

  3. Yes, and putting all of these things together undermines the general argument the author is making — that people are becoming less ethical in the advancement of their children, and, furthermore that the elite/advantaged are more likely to shade the lines/cross lines in the advancement of their children.

    She cites to some potentially interesting reports on the ethics of children (say, the likelihood that they will cheated as compared to those older than them). Lots of details to follow up (including what is defined as cheating and how much of the behavior changes with age rather than with “the age”), but, data driven, something a bit more than bemoaning the moral turpitude of today’s children as opposed to those of prior ages.

  4. I also don’t think that a 22K SAT tutor is cheating, unless the person does indeed cheat for you (by taking the test, or by getting access to tests before you take them). Teaching someone how to do the kinds of problems on the SAT isn’t cheating (though it’s hard to imagine why it would be worth 22K).

    I remember working out a related thought when a friend told me they’d hired a math tutor for their kid — not because the kid was failing at math but because they were great and math and the parent wanted more math coaching. My first reaction was negative, but then I decided it was no different than hiring a piano teacher. True, not everyone has either of those opportunities, but there’s no reason why hiring one is different than hiring the other (and I consider the quibbles, like, say, piano isn’t an academic subject but math is to not be truly differences).

    1. None of us ever took SAT prep classes, because my mother viewed it as cheating. Studying by ourselves from a book in the library was borderline ok, but anything more than that was a clear abuse of the system, since it was supposed to be a “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” not a content test. Her attitude was that if we couldn’t get high scores based on our general upbringing, then we didn’t deserve to go to a school which required high scores. My parents were unique among US middle class parents in that they spent much of our childhood teaching us that we weren’t special snowflakes, and if we couldn’t succeed through our own efforts, then we didn’t deserve to succeed at all.

      1. I wouldn’t go with the morally freighted language of “cheating” and “deserving,” but there is something to be said for the view that you would not be doing your child a favor by getting him into a college that was beyond his reach academically. But this analysis reinforces my original objection to the original article, that it conflates the potentially inadvisable (like helping your kids with their homework, which should be done with prudence and good judgment) with the sort of sleazy (like pulling certain kinds of strings) with the utterly wicked (like forging letters).

        However, if everyone else is taking SAT prep courses, then this consideration loses its force. Also, as I understand, the SATs have been altered over the years to be much tests of pure aptitude, and much more tied to high school curricula. For example, few high schools teach much probability, but kids who are good at math generally are usually good at permutations and combinations. The SATs used to have a lot of this material, but they have dropped it, because it doesn’t test anything that the kids have studied.

    2. SAT tests no longer purport to be “aptitude” tests (i.e. the SAT doesn’t stand for anything anymore, right?). I believe the college board’s position on prepping is that you can prep by using their materials (which are the cost of a SAT book) and that more expensive prepping isn’t going to be particularly useful.. So, there’s no question that there’s nothing “cheating” about SAT prep from the point of view of the SAT (unless there is actual cheating).

      The same is not true for IQ tests, where substantial practice with the “kinds of questions” can alter the validity of the scores (hence the NYC independent school decision to stop using their version of IQ tests administered through the ERB).

  5. This was a really great article. It summed up so many of the feelings I had when I lived in Northern Virginia that I was unable to articulate. I remember at the time telling my husband that I was honestly nervous sending my little kids on field trips supervised by other parents because I didn’t feel that most of the parents were motivated to look after anyone’s kid but their own.

    My own experience has been with music parents and I spent most of my own childhood playing the piano. One of the earliest lessons I remember was having our teachers tell us that we were required to consciously listen to the other pupils in the recital, to notice two things that someone did well and then to COMPLIMENT them after the recital. The lesson stuck so well that I still do it to this day at my kid’s recitals, and I’ve taught my kids to do the same thing. However, when my son was about eight, he asked me “Mom, how come you always say nice things to the other kids who are playing, and you make us do that — but nobody other than my teacher has ever said nice things to me after a recital?”

    First, I was shocked to realize that he was right! People in NOrthern virginia don’t compliment other peole’s kids. EVer. They just regard them as the competition. And secondly I realized that my child was growing up in an environment where he realized that most of his friend’s parents weren’t actually rooting for him, but were instead secretly hoping that he would fail and that their kid could take his spot — in the orchestra, on the team, in the college. What a hideous environment to raise a child in!

    This year, my son is applying to college and I am almost paranoid about giving no one any information about where he is applying, what his SAT scores were, etc. etc. etc. I won’t even tell my relatives! Unfortunately, I think that in this ‘winner take all’ society, what we’ve lost is this sense that there’s a community we are all invested in. It hurts to realize that you may indeed be the only person who wants your kid to succeed. Lots of other parents want your kid to fail, so that there’s more for their child. (This seems so strange to me. I don’t want anyone to fail. I always WANT to help other people’s kids — saying, “Here’s a scholarship application that we’re not eligible for, but that maybe works for you.” and my husband, who grew up in a fiercely competitive environment outside Boston is always telling me to stop doing that.)

    1. One of the earliest lessons I remember was having our teachers tell us that we were required to consciously listen to the other pupils in the recital, to notice two things that someone did well and then to COMPLIMENT them after the recital.

      One of the earliest lessons I remember is that I can compliment musical performances just as well whether I listen to them or not regardless of whose kid it is.

      1. Probably not to the degree that we were supposed to be doing (saying things like “Your intonation is getting so much better/wow, I can really tell that you’ve been working on your vibrato”. In order to do that, you need to actually pay attention to some body’s progress other than your own, and as a parent you need to actually be able to notice and compliment someone else’s kid at having gotten better at a specific skill. IT requires actually being open to being supportive of someone else’s kid in a very specific way. It was considered a cop-out to merely say something like “I liked the Beethoven.”

      2. Me too, but that’s ’cause I can’t hear music the way other people do. A group of my kiddos recently recorded some music in garage band and were getting a kick out of playing it backwards and I told them I couldn’t tell. At first they were worried that the music had gone awry, but I assured them that it was just me.

      3. I’m too tone deaf to be able to do any of that stuff regardless of how much attention I pay. I’ve learned by experience that attempting anything more specific than “Hey, you sounded great” just gets me into trouble.

  6. Two kids I knew whose parents redshirted them – one for first grade (same age as my #1, went into kindergarten with my #2, they were in day care together) was wretched in his last year in day care. He was so over nap time and reading circle. Clung to my kid as the closest thing to an appropriate friend. We saw him a fair amount in teams and school events going forward, and it didn’t seem to me that he was any more confident or well adjusted than the kids who had gone in at the normal age.

    The other was adopted from Ethiopia, and came into US schools at second grade though by age he would have been in third. I kind of think it worked better for him: he was a soccer hero! and this did great things for his feelings. He was kind of inappropriately interested in and insistent with the girls in sixth grade, though, when other boys were sort of behind him in that interest, and the girls were kind of flustered by the whole thing.

    1. “He was so over nap time and reading circle.”

      Nap time is a very painful issue. My middle child was even really over nap time by later preschool and pre-K. He was around 4.5 at the start of pre-K (which should have been the golden mean, age-wise) and he hadn’t been napping at home for a while then (his habit of smearing poopy diapers around his crib eventually broke me of the nap-giving habit). Having to nap was a huge negative for him.

      I personally recall being expected to take “naps” at school well into 1st grade (lights were off, we all lay down on our towels, but I don’t think there was any sleeping). It wasn’t terrible, but now that I’m an adult, I’m pretty sure I know whose benefit those naps were for.

  7. My first, snarky reaction: If one strings together enough rumors and anecdotes, it makes an article? Groovy. /sarc.

    My second reaction? New York is a very sad place.

  8. Yeah, did notice the rumor about the wife who slept with an admissions offer to get into an Ivy. My thought was how likely is that work? I mean, unless the wife is Julia Roberts.

    I asked my kid if she thinks parents in her school community compliment the children and she said yes. We are on the west coat, though, and I do feel like the environment is different here. Some of the difference is just on the surface — competition, but without appearing to compete, success is supposed to seem effortless (so no one would admit to tutoring, as an example). Some of it might be real, though.

  9. Our school has set a hard, but early age limit for K applications — no redshirting. There is only one year your child can apply for Kindergarten and in following years, they must apply for the grade after the one they are in. The scheme does disadvantage the kids born right before the deadline. The old system let parents decide whether they thought their kids were ready, but enough parents with kids w/ summer birthdays were playing the redshirting for advantage game (rather than the redshirting for equalization, which are subtly different, but, hey, definitely a gray area) that the age range in the classes was getting too broad (or, they were turning away young kids for merely being young).

  10. We are grinding our sullen teen through SAT prep, because everyone is doing it. Can’t unilaterally disarm. The numbers are fairly clear, most kids can get about a third of a standard deviation improvement from drilling – and at the altitude at which our guy is cruising (he can see clotheslines in the yards below) 1/3 SD will substantially broaden his choice of colleges. BI, I am with you on the idea that a school where everyone else had stellar scores may not do so much for you if you are not a stellar scorer – one of my very good friends went to Harvard, says, ‘we knew who didn’t belong there’.

    The anti-affirmative action people who talk about kids being damaged by mismatch have made a big impression on me, and I think if my clothesline-viewing guy were at Princeton he would feel like an imposter and his experience would be less helpful than if he goes to a school where the others have viewed clotheslines, too.

    1. There’s also the issue that if you are the sort of person who can grind through an SAT prep book from cover to cover and figure out how to do every single problem, you will probably also be the sort of person who can manage the demands of college pretty well. In fact, you may be able to manage college better than a “natural” who can do the SAT problems without effort.

  11. Yes, I agree with y81 that the article didn’t make enough distinctions between normal parenting (SAT prep classes) and really bad behavior.

    My kids have never had tutors, but they have two parents with PhDs who are very involved in their education. Jonah had a history test on Louis XIV on Monday. At dinner on Sunday, Steve talked with him about French history. Sometimes, Steve went a little too far and went into how Marxist historians interpret this history versus other scholars. Even though a bit of his discussion went over Jonah’s head, he was able to add details and life to the textbook-y classroom material.

    Is that cheating? Is that any different than hiring a tutor?

    Perhaps the problem isn’t that rich people hire tutors. Perhaps the problem is that poor people can’t. Perhaps the problem is that people need to hire tutors, and that schools aren’t teaching all kids equally.

    I do think that kids are under way too much pressure right now, and that parents are worried that their kids won’t make it to the middle class without extra help and cheating.

  12. My kids didn’t do SAT prep. I don’t think everyone’s doing it. After a certain level, time spent on SAT prep is better spent on studying or extracurriculars, IMHO. I’m grateful my kids all love to read. It’s not possible to cram a lifetime of pleasure reading in in six months. My oldest child’s guidance counselor tried to persuade parents to wait until the PSAT scores came back, rather than starting SAT prep in freshman year. She asserted that scores do improve as students get older, without prep.

    I guess it’s the “everybody’s doing it” tone of the article which got my goat. Our local public school does do assessments of all rising kindergartners the spring before kindergarten starts. All the parents I know who’ve “redshirted” their children have done it on the school’s advice. Of course, football’s not nearly as big in this area as it is in Texas; at present, I believe kiddie lacrosse is much more popular than kiddie football.

    Louisa, as my oldest was applying to colleges, I made a practice of trying to steer conversations away from her scores, what colleges she was looking at, etc., other than really generally talking of the areas of the country we’d visited. I might have talked (with praise) of colleges she decided to drop from her list. It was really no one’s business but hers (and ours) where she was applying. I think the students at her school (or at least her closest friends) tried to keep the whole college application rumor mill under control by Not Talking About it in public.

  13. I was thinking about this as I drove kids to school this morning. THe article conflated a bunch of things — lady sleeping with the admissions officer, kids having lice and SAT prep. If what we’re talking about is actual ethical/philosophical dilemmas along the lines of: There are only so many spaces in the life raft. How do we divide them? then two specific concrete examples come to mind for me:

    1. Have any of you had the experience with the girl scout/cub scout/other carpool where somehow or other Goofy Mom drives off with six carseats and five kids, leaving you with five carseats and six kids? In that scenario, how many of you have chosen to put somebody else’s kids in carseats, leaving your kid to roll around the back seat without one? ANd how many of you have chosen to make darned sure your kid had a carseat?
    2. EVery year I get a call from the principal of my kid’s private Christian school asking if we couldn’t just maybe make room in our house for the remaining Asian exchange student that they’re having trouble placing. We’re a fine upstanding family and the sort of family that really should be taking the Asian exchange student — and every year, I think about splitting my limited hours with my kids at the end of the day after working a full-time job and realize that time spent helping somebody else’s kids adjust to life in the US, learning English, proofreading their essays, etc. is time that I won’t have to ride herd on my kids, force them to write their college essays, etc. And every year I decline the invite to host while feeling horrible about it. In an environment of limited hours, mine go to my kids and not somebody else’s.

    Neither of these examples is cheating per se, but in both instances it is selfish behavior because I’ve chosen to let someone else accept the risk and I’ve chosen not to share. I think this is the dilemma that the writer was really concerned with — in an environment where the risk of failure feels high, and the costs of that failure also seem really high, what incentive is there to care about the group? ANd in both of these instances, my kids are watching me choose to help them first. THis isn’t the same as lying about their age, doing their work for them, buying influence — it’s just choosing to acquire more individual goods rather than contributing to the collective. But in each case, the risk of not choosing to enrich my family seems pretty great.

    1. 1) I think that happened once. I put the other child in the carseat. I admit, my child was on the borderline as to size at the time. And then again, my oldest had very different laws regarding carseats in force than my youngest, (state laws had changed in the interim), so I was pretty sure we could make it home safely.

      2) You should take the exchange student. He or she probably could proofread your essays. It’s also a good source of college essay topics for your children.

    2. I don’t think people should take exchange students that they don’t really want, or don’t really have time for. When my sister did an exchange to Germany, that was a huge problem–a lot of the German families were terribly burnt out and/or thought of the exchange program as an even cheaper version of the au pair system. (That’s the source of my anecdote about my sister being told by her German host mom, that kitchen floor looks like you only spent 45 minutes on it.)

      You have three kids. When you’ve only got one at home, I would encourage you to take an Asian exchange student, even just for selfish reasons. It will be very educational for your kid. Plus, you’ll probably be feeling a little lonely at that point.

    3. One of my aunties boards 3 or 4 overseas Asian community college students at a time now that she’s a divorcee and an empty nester (she gets $500 a head per month from the college). She has a huge rice cooker in her kitchen now.

  14. What I like about this discussion is that it is making transparent the privilege that some enjoy that would otherwise be taken for granted. That old saying again, “born on third and thought he hit a triple”.

    Putting aside true ethical issues like cheating, privilege is many of the instances noted above, including Laura’s kids having two PhD parents. It’s the variety of topics discussed at the dinner table, it’s having family friends who are in various professions who can be role models for your kids (“oh, you are thinking of being a psychologist/teacher/whatever, my friend Frieda is that very thing – go speak with her”). It’s having the funds to hire a tutor. It’s knowing how and when to hire a tutor.

    It’s also subtle things like having the social skills to banter with the team coach or build a strong relationship with your child’s teacher.

    I think Laura hit the nail on the head – it’s not so much that this is happening (again excluding the obvious cheating), it’s that in the perceived/real high stakes today, many are getting left behind because they don’t enjoy this privilege.

    Of course our kids all have to perform once they get wherever “there” is, but they ARE at least getting a seat at the table.

  15. 1) I always put someone else’s child in the car seat in your scenario. One of my children is big, the other small, but for me this was a no-brainer in accommodating what the other parent might want. But, I’m not a believer in car seats as a protector against all evil (some of the families in my social group are). And, I kind of know which parents aren’t as compulsive, as well.

    2) I don’t take exchange students, and I see this as a good example of knowing what your limits are. I have high needs for privacy and would not do well with someone else in the house (and, it wouldn’t be a great experience for them, either). I have had people stay in my house when they needed a place to stay, but in those cases, I ignored them (we have guest space in our house that is quite private). That would not be a good scenario for an exchange student, so I say no without guilt.

    I’m now in the chapter in my book on interactions between parents and schools and the struggles schools have with parents who see their child as being the only purpose of the school (and not so clearly that school is a community that’s for all the students in the school). It’s interesting how on point the author is about the barriers schools put up because they work under the presumption that every parent will be concerned with only their child with no concern for others.

    Parents may fall into this trap a lot — say even the SAT prep question. My kids don’t need much prep (readers, good test takers). So, when if I diss prep, am I just supporting the system that favors my children?

    But, because of the presumption (stereotypes, and potentially the statistics), schools react to every parental interaction as though a parent is only going to be concerned about their child. Which creates poor dynamics of its own.

    1. “I always put someone else’s child in the car seat in your scenario. One of my children is big, the other small, but for me this was a no-brainer in accommodating what the other parent might want. But, I’m not a believer in car seats as a protector against all evil (some of the families in my social group are). And, I kind of know which parents aren’t as compulsive, as well.”

      Concur. It’s not even a size issue. It’s a “what is the *real* risk” issue?

  16. I agree about the staying mum on college quests/plans. My kids aren’t at that stage yet, but I see no value to the incessant discussions on the subject. I do wonder how well the kids can keep that information private.

  17. I think the understanding of privilege in all its different forms is a useful part of the discussion, but I think where the article falls short is when it conflates those ideas of privilege with straight out cheating and with gray areas. The conflation is dangerous, because, when authors or students or teachers start to equate SAT prep with forging recommendation letters people start to be unable to see the lines they shouldn’t cross.

    Furthermore, some of the activities (helping with homework by discussing one’s deep knowledge of French history or the brain) v others (doing your child’s math worksheet because they were up late at hockey practice) can sound like the same thing (helping with homework). But one is right and the other is wrong.

    A deeper issue I see is a belief that bending the rules/cheating is OK because the rules are ridiculous anyway. I’m guessing practically everyone has done this in the form of driving over a speed limit that seems to have been set ridiculously low. But, I’m sensing that children are starting to feel this way about a lot of what they have to do for school (say, homework sets that seem repetitive and take a lot of time).

  18. I think the school stuff is also affected by the universities and colleges and even high schools that use that consumer analogy — the student is the customer and the education is the good that’s being sold. I think that analogy is damaging on so many levels (I’m a professor and don’t like being thought of as “the help” nor do I believe that the student is always right). But I think that the consumer analogy also perhaps abets cheating and rule-breaking. There’s an element of “well, I”m paying for it, so why shouldn’t I have exactly what I want? a place on the sports team that always wins. The best teacher for MY child. The best seat in the house for my child in every class.” If I can change my plane tickets and the date for my vacation, then why can’t I change the due date for my kids’ assignments, etc.

    1. I think such “consumer” behavior backfires, though. That’s why there’s still a role for recommendations in college applications. As I implied before, I think a fair number of the “cheating” behavior cited in the article arise from gossip or urban legends. Most colleges are on the Common App now, and as far as I know, the students don’t see the recommendations. I’ll admit I’ve never bothered set up a Common App account to check it out. My kid took care of the application on her end, her school used Naviance, and no, I never saw her application. However, I think a big advantage of an online app system is that the recommendations and school reports go directly from the recommender/school to the college. There’s no monkey business with steaming envelopes open, or whatnot.

      As to sleeping with a college admissions officer, I don’t think they have time for that. And it is done by committee, so if the kid’s doesn’t have an application that’s admissible, I don’t think one vote will get him in. And, er, just, ick.

      People will try to game any system that’s set up. It isn’t exclusively tied to parenting. I haven’t seen the sorts of parents who do their kids’ homework reap any benefits from it in the long run. Our kids who attended boarding school escaped that craziness. Before they went to high school, though, it was suspicious when some of my oldest child’s classmates parents always knew the due dates and upcoming tests… But if a kid doesn’t do the homework, she’ll be lost when the test comes around, and her classwork won’t match the work produced at home. So if parents cheat that way, I think it doesn’t pay off in the end, because the teachers I’ve known have had a good nose for glaring contradictions like that.

  19. “So if parents cheat that way, I think it doesn’t pay off in the end, because the teachers I’ve known have had a good nose for glaring contradictions like that.”

    I sometimes agree with this sentiment, that in the end it all works out. There’s even support for the belief that givers (and I’m thinking giving/is part of not worrying about cheating) are just better off :

    I agree too that the article was a stream of consciousness rumor-mongering of cheating that *could* be occurring with no real evidence, on the whole, and that rumor-mongering on cheating can have pernicious effects of convincing undermining the community, exaggerating cheating to the tipping point where people start to believe it’s the norm (even if it isn’t).

    But I also believe that this cannot always be the case, that there are societies and communities that become so corrupt that cheating rewards cheaters and punishes those who try to live fairly (today’s NY Times article on corruption in Chinese schooling is a good example).

    So I don’t think we can just bury our heads in the sand and accept that, say parents doing homework or kids collaborating on joint homework sets will just all balance out in the end. I think we have to talk about the rules and the ethics and have structural supports that undermine the advantages of cheating (directly sent recommendation letters, homework balanced with tests, are examples).

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